BALTIMORE — The best stuff always happens with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. That’s when the Baltimore Orioles — and the visiting Tampa Bay Rays, in fact — clinched a playoff spot on Sunday. Problem was, they clinched it more than 300 miles away from Camden Yards.
That’s what the record will show, at least, but the Orioles did not come this far to join baseball’s elite on a called third strike in Cleveland. Technically, that was the clinching moment — the Guardians closing down a rout of the Texas Rangers — but that’s not the vision that drives you when you’ve been baseball’s worst team.
This was more like it: single runs in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings, a picket fence on the scoreboard that opened the gate to October. Fireworks over center field. An empty water bucket and a puddle on the infield dirt. “Oriole Magic” on the sound system, flag-waving mascot on the mound, T-shirts and beer bongs and cigars and joy.
“It’s everything I could have imagined,” said outfielder Austin Hays, smiling broadly in a clubhouse not used to revelry. “I’ve wanted to celebrate this; I’ve wanted to move on to this milestone. We’re getting to do it together.”
The Orioles drafted Hays in 2016, the last year they reached the playoffs. He arrived in the majors the next September, with the Orioles on the fringes of the pennant race. In Hays’ first at-bat, he grounded out to finish a blowout loss to the Yankees, starting a 4-19 slide to the finish.
It was an omen. In the five seasons from 2012 through 2016, the Orioles had the best record in the American League. In the next five seasons, 2017 through 2021, they had the worst. Now, just two years after going 52-110, they are pacing the AL again.
General manager Mike Elias might be the only one — out of uniform, at least — who is not surprised by such an emphatic turnaround.
“I’m not,” said Elias, who came to Baltimore from Houston in November 2018. “I’ve seen it before. I’ve lived through it before. You just keep pushing in the right direction and the door just pops open suddenly.”
Elias credited his predecessor, Dan Duquette, for leaving him talented players like Hays, Cedric Mullins, John Means and Anthony Santander, plus a farm system with keepers like Ryan Mountcastle and Grayson Rodriguez, the rookie right-hander whose fastball humbled the Rays for eight shutout innings on Saturday.
It was the longest of Rodriguez’s 21 major-league starts, and the first without a walk. Demoted in late May with a 7.35 ERA, Rodriguez has been throwing more strikes and thriving (second-half ERA: 2.59). On Saturday he shook off a liner to his calf, buoyed by his catcher, Adley Rutschman, and the crowd.
“A lot of adrenaline,” Rodriguez said. “The fans kept me in the game, for sure. Me and Adley were laughing about it. We were coming out of the bullpen and we were saying, ‘Let’s have some fun. There’s 35, 40,000 of our best friends here tonight.’”
Those friends waited patiently for Rutschman, who has delivered on his pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, Elias’ first draft with the Orioles. Rutschman’s promotion last May was the moment things got serious in Baltimore, the signal that better days had finally arrived.
“It sure seems like it,” Hays said. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but I know what the numbers look like ever since he got called up. You kind of have to say that was the turning point. He’s just so consistent, so steady and so great for this team behind the dish, working his magic fingers for our pitching staff.”
The Orioles, who are 160-111 since Rutschman’s debut, have not been swept in a series all season. Their longest losing streak is four games, once in the first half and once last week. When they broke the second streak on Saturday, the offensive star was rookie shortstop Gunnar Henderson, who was 3-for-5 with a homer.
Rutschman did the same on Sunday, with a double in the first inning, a homer in the eighth and a two-out, game-tying single in the 10th. Then, as the automatic runner, Rutschman scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly by Mullins in the 11th.
It was a sublime performance — symbolic for its impact on the playoff berth, but seismic for the division race. The Orioles hold a two-game lead over the Rays in the AL East, and also own the tiebreaker by winning the season series. Rutschman, who was 1-for-15 during the losing streak, rose to his surroundings.
“I just want him to be himself,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He puts enough pressure on himself, I don’t need for him to recognize any moment or anything. He wants to deliver; it matters to him. Whether he has a good game offensively or bad, it’s all about wins and losses with him, and his teammates. He’s an unbelievably unselfish player.”
To Rutschman, who won a College World Series with Oregon State, the Orioles’ ascension is predictable; the players had high expectations and knew how good they could be. Even so, he said, he never expected such emotion on Sunday.
“It just shows how close the guys are,” Rutschman said. “I know guys aren’t satisfied with this, but we’re gonna celebrate this today.”
This is the first step. pic.twitter.com/h1ZNUfg4Oq
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) September 17, 2023
If the Orioles had lost but still clinched, the players had decided, they would have marked it with a simple postgame toast. Instead, they got it all: the walk-off win, the wailing crowd, the wild clubhouse. They knew they had clinched. They wanted more.
“This team’s just competitive in general,” Rutschman said. “They announced it, (but) I don’t think guys are satisfied with that. They want to win every day. It’s just the identity of this team.”
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(Top photo: Julio Cortez / Associated Press)